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How midwives are working to fix healthcare disparities for bipoc mothers

Many Black and indigenous people of color say they experience treatment in hospitals during childbirth that makes them feel unheard.

COLORADO, USA — Bringing new life into the world should be one of the most exciting times for a mother, but for some bipoc (Black or indigenous people of color), it can be filled with negative experiences.

Black, American Indian, and Alaska Native women are two to three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women, according to a 2016 study by the CDC.

Midwives, especially Black midwives, have played a critical role in improving care and outcomes for bipoc families. 

The history of Black midwives and doulas in Colorado

Midwifery's history in the U.S. goes back to West Africa, where in many communities, midwives helped women to give birth and served as family counselors, breastfeeding consultants and more. 

Denver is home to the first licensed African-American female doctor, Justina Ford, who estimated she had delivered some 7,000 babies during her 50-year career. 

RELATED: Dr. Justina Ford honored for what would be her 150th birthday

Ford migrated to Colorado in the late 1800s after obtaining a degree in Chicago and being denied a license. 

Ford specialized in general medicine and treated people either in her office or in their homes. Most patients came to her for checkups, minor illness and obstetrical care. 

"The oppression she received as a Black woman and being a provider she really broke down barriers," said Demitra Seriki, a licensed midwife in Colorado Springs. "She wasn't just a physician; she was a community health provider who provided care for the entire community."

Midwifery in Colorado today

Seriki opened her own center called A Mother's Choice Midwifery in Colorado Springs to help families during the birthing process at home and the hospital.

"We have the same schedules as OBGYN (Obstetrics and gynecologist)," Seriki said. "So every four weeks, two weeks and then weekly and then we have a home visit."

Seriki said her mission is to bridge the gap women of color face during pregnancy due to lack of resources, education and rampant racism in the medical field.

"It starts if we can to teach them before they're pregnant," she said. "They have a responsibility to themselves of educating themselves on a provider they wish to choose."

"I was not expecting the pushback that I had from staff, especially from the nurse," said Shelby Irvin, owner of the Soulful Momma in Colorado.

It's a feeling that many Black women say they feel when giving birth in the hospital.

She said she decided to become a doula because of her own pregnancy and birthing experience when the hospital staff was not respectful of her decisions. A doula is a woman who is employed to provide guidance and support to a pregnant woman during labor.

"My husband and I go in, you know strong together, and the induction process starts and automatically it's like you need to sign this paperwork and get your epidural, and I was like, 'I'm birthing naturally,' and they said, 'you're not ready for what happens with an induction'," Irvin said. 

Irvin said this traumatic experience continued even after her newborn's birth, while she was struggling with breastfeeding.

"We're just trying and trying, and I'll never forget the lactation consultant support looked at me and said, 'people like you are lazy'," Irvin said. "She literally said 'Black people are lazy, and they do not want to breastfeed their babies'."

Irvin is also a certified lactation counselor and childbirth educator along with her title of a doula, and her business strives to create a safe place for mothers of color to be who they are.

"Ideally, it's best to reach your doula when you know you've conceived and you want extra support," she said. "We do a consultation, see if we are a good fit, and from their support automatically starts."

Irvin is now one of only two black lactation counselors in El Paso county and said she hopes more women of color will join the field because representation is key.

"When we have representation, we change the biases around us," she said. "So when we see Black people showing up, Black mothers and fathers and Black birthing people, in general, being a part of that process, it changes what our outcome will be."

Sometimes Seriki and Irvin work closely together. They say it's a village effort to make sure families are getting taken care of. 

"It doesn't matter where you have your baby, birth center, home birth or hospital; we're not married to the place of service; we're married to the experience and the care these pregnant people receive," said Seriki.

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